An open letter to Georgia Gov.-elect Brian Kemp

Dear Brian Kemp,

As you prepare to step into the governor’s office, you stand at a crossroads.

Will you be a governor who  embodies the image you presented during the primaries – a gun-toting, anti-immigration, pro-religious liberty leader who divides our state?

Or will you be a unifying force who appeals to Georgia’s demographic diversity, its rural and urban areas as well as someone who will nurture economic development in all corners of the state?

Gov. Kemp's transition team

Gov.-elect Brian Kemp’s transition team announced. Image is from WXIA-TV

It’s hard to tell whether you’ll take the low road or the high road based on early indicators during your tenure as governor-elect.

There are several encouraging signs.

Your transition team reflects the demographic diversity that exists in Georgia – including both younger and more seasoned leaders as well as Latinos, Asians, LGBT, African-Americans and women. That bodes well for the kind of administration you will build over time.

One downside is that as far as I can tell, all the transition team members in leadership positions are white males.

Obviously the list includes Republican stalwarts and people who have been in yours inner circle for years, if not decades. It would be wonderful if you included some Democratic leaders in that inner circle in the future. State Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus), for example, has been quite public about the need for the political parties to work together in the interest of what’s best for Georgia.

Brian Kemp did not declare victory in a close gubernatorial contest, but he said the math is on his side. Credit: Maggie Lee

Brian Kemp did not declare victory in a close gubernatorial contest, but he said the math is on his side. Credit: Maggie Lee

Several of the team members also were part of the administration of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, which also is not surprising. (Perdue, who is now U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, appointed Kemp as Georgia’s Secretary of State in early 2010 when then-Secretary of State Karen Handel resigned to run for governor. Kemp was elected as Secretary of State that November. He  served in that role until this past November,  when the voting was finished in his race with Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams.

Without question, Sonny Perdue and his cousin – U.S. Senator David Perdue (R-Georgia) were instrumental in your election. As I understand it, they played a role in getting President Donald Trump to endorse you in the primary and to come campaign for you two days before the November election.

So it makes me wonder that when you become governor, will you follow the Perdue model or the model of outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal? Or will it be a hybrid?

When Perdue surprisingly won the 2002 gubernatorial election, he did so without the support of most of Atlanta’s business community, which was backing then-Gov. Roy Barnes’ re-election. Within months of Perdue taking office, the battle over changing the state flag also tested the relationship between the governor and the business community

Unfortunately, the relationship between Perdue and the Atlanta business community was strained during most of his years as governor.

Brian Kemp

Republican Brian Kemp at Metro Atlanta Chamber (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Gov. Deal, by comparison, has built a strong relationship with Atlanta business leaders – largely through his strong economic development platform and through his friendship with former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. It sent a signal that we had moved beyond the two Georgias – Atlanta versus the rest of the state. It showed we were a more united Georgia – and Deal and Reed were able to move the state further by taking advantage of their ties with different political parties.

You have said rural economic development is a top priority for you, and that is commendable. I just hope that it is not at the expense of development in metro Atlanta, which is the economic engine of Georgia. You have been quoted as saying you want to unite the state, and I’m hoping you will do just that.

But one discouraging development is your “Georgia First Celebration” bus tour to nine communities – Augusta, Savannah, Fort Valley, Blakely, Chula, Columbus, Whitesburg, Gainesville and Dalton.

Although metro Atlanta represents nearly half of the state’s population, you are not making one stop in the region. That is disconcerting.

Gov.-elect Brian Kemp greets folks at the Biennial conference in Athens on Tuesday. Credit: Maggie Lee

Gov.-elect Brian Kemp greets folks at the Biennial conference in Athens in December, 2018. Credit: Maggie Lee

Some could argue you didn’t have a strong base of support in metro Atlanta, and since this is a “thank you” tour, it doesn’t make sense for you to make a stop in the region. Maybe so. But at some point, you need to make it clear, through your actions, that you are governor for all of Georgia– including the areas that supported you and those that did not.

Brian Kemp’s spokesman Cody Hall contacted me after the posting of this column to explain the rationale behind the statewide celebratory tour. Because all three of the official inaugural events plus the gala will be held in Atlanta next week, the Kemp team “wanted to have ‘inaugural events’ all across the state as well,” Hall explained.

On a positive note, you made a great statement when you drove across the street to meet with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Dec. 5, the day after Georgia held run-off elections. What a warm gesture you initiated, one that bodes well for future relations between the state and its capital city.

An area of ongoing concern, however, is your repeated commitment to passing a religious liberty bill. You told me it would mirror the language in the 1993 federal religious liberty bill, and that people should not have a problem with that language.

But times have changed since 1993. And the mere mention of religious liberty legislation sends ripples of concerns throughout Georgia’s economic development circles, including our prospering film industry.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms with Gov.-elect Brian Kemp (Special)

A photo was taken when Gov.-elect Brian Kemp was driven to Atlanta’s City Hall to meet with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Dec. 5, 2018 (Special)

My hope is that you would leave well enough alone. Gov. Deal has said Georgia’s attempt to pass religious liberty legislation is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Several people I talked to said they would hope such legislation would never reach your desk – and we can count on leaders in the General Assembly to prevent it from getting out of committee.

Let’s hope that’s true. But if you were to publicly back away from religious liberty legislation, it would remove a cloud that threatens Georgia’s ability to retain its title as the No. 1 state for business.

People who know you well say you’re a warm person who will be one of the hardest working governors Georgia has ever had. I hear you don’t hold grudges and that you are willing to work with people who may not always agree with you.

I have had my own example of how you work.

Shortly after you were elected as Secretary of State, I reached out to you with a concern. As chair of the Loudermilk-Young Debate Series for the Atlanta Press Club, I was quite discouraged after the 2010 election cycle. Several incumbent candidates did not accept the invitation to our debates, which meant we had several empty-podium debates.

Candidates for Georgia Governor from left; Democrat Stacey Abrams, Republican Sec. of State Brian Kemp, and Libertarian Ted Metz, right, during a pause in a debate on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, in Atlanta. Credit: AP Photo/John Bazemore

Candidates for Georgia Governor from left; Democrat Stacey Abrams, Republican Sec. of State Brian Kemp, and Libertarian Ted Metz, right, during a pause in a debate on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, in Atlanta. Credit: AP Photo/John Bazemore

Because you were Secretary of State, I thought you may have some ideas on how we could get candidates to accept our invitation.

A few days after we spoke, you called me to say you had been thinking about our problem. Because we didn’t always have strong viewership for our debates, you said candidates may have felt it wasn’t worth their while to participate. You told me that we needed to do everything we could to make our debates events that candidates could not skip. That meant giving them life beyond a one-time broadcast by promoting them on social media and making sure they had an ongoing presence online.

Thanks to you and others, we brought in a social media team to help us, and we began to livestream our debates. In 2014, we had 100 percent participation among the candidates we had invited. And in 2018, our televised gubernatorial debate – the only one that was held – we had 235,000 views on our Facebook page with a reach of 587,047. That did not include the views on GPB’s website or the people who watched the live debate.

That encounter told me a lot about you. You were thoughtful, honest and constructive. And you helped us improve what we do.

So in this open letter to you, I want to publicly thank you for your help.

And I wish you the best as our next governor.

Sincerely,

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

16 replies
  1. Avatar
    Bill Rawlins says:

    I have been subscribed to your e-letter for a while. No longer. You criticize Kemp because he is "pro-religious liberty". Seriously? And then you accuse him of "gun-toting"? Your opposition to the first amendment and the second amendment firmly positions you as a person on the left fringe. I'm sure there is an audience for that, but it's not me, and it's probably not 75% of your current audience.Report

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  2. Avatar
    brainstar8 says:

    Hold up, Maria. It's not as if you're addressing a corrupt, self-serving Kasim Reed, or his ilk. And you're not addressing an angry,one-trick-pony Abrams. Kemp would not have been my choice to be our governor, but Nathan Deal could not run again. Like the 2016 presidential contest, the governor's race left voters with a Sophie's Choice. Kemp made a huge mistake with his early campaign advertising, but his change of course showed then, and now, he was and is listening.

    Georgia's success is tied inextricably to Atlanta's success, and thanks to the business acumen and cool-headed strategies of Deal and the Atlanta business power structure, Atlanta is booming. The rest of the state benefits. Bottom line: it is a must that we have a governor who can stay the course that Deal and his political and business partners set – and Kemp is more likely to improve on it than is Abrams. She is posturing, preparing herself for a much bigger stage than Georgia. She's tasted celebrityhood, and she's addicted.

    As a long-time resident of Atlanta, I've seen a parade of preening celebrity mayors and their causes, watching infrastructure and a school system decay and serious crime rise. Enter Shirley Franklin. She was a mayor who tackled the problems dragging down the city. (Didn't last – Reed came in). I see Kemp as a Franklin type. He's a governor – not someone starved for the national spotlight. Minus national and economic disasters, Kemp will do very well.Report

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  3. Avatar
    Anna Foote says:

    Really? that's what you got out of Maria's letter? WOW. I'm mad at her for giving him such an easy pass. He campaigned on the most radical right platform I've seen in 20 years of Governor's races. He practically ignored (worse, he insulted) Atlanta and still does, but he works in the City that is THE economic engine of this state! I have no hope that Kemp will be a governor for the entire state and all its citizens. I am confident he will focus on making his friends and cronies rich and continue a pattern of discrimination and bigotry that has haunted the Dome for two centuries. I am disappointed in Maria for pandering to this louse. But I WILL keep reading her periodical because we ALL need to hear various sides of issues or we can get stuck in our own echo/ego-chambers.Report

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  4. Avatar
    Robert J Snelling says:

    Brian Kemp won the election. He will be our governor for four years. As to how he staffs his advisers I go back to a premise offered to me by a civics teacher in high school – my son says that was in "ancient history". I might agree since we actually had to study how government works. Or teacher offered this description of what happens after elections; "To the victor belong the spoils."Report

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  5. Avatar
    brainstar8 says:

    Aren't you in an echo/ego chamber? Always discriminated against by a bigot – in other words, not your candidate – the one who can tap into your emotions?

    Maria is a talented writer and her own person, and I believe she has the best interests of the city and state at heart, but she struck a chord that disappointed me.

    Long-time City of ATL residents, my family and I are preparing to leave our home state. We're over toxic City life, and we're done with politics as usual. I've twice worked for the State, and you are correct. It's all about power plays, cronyism and pocket-lining. Laziness, too. The best people do not go into politics – only a very few exceptions. Stacy Abrams is not one of the exceptions. She is an opportunist.

    We've done our homework and are looking at smaller cities and towns – government, infrastructure, crime rates, health stats, housing, culture, community. Having a Neiman-Marcus, Whole Foods and a fabulous new "restaurant of the moment" – not so important. If your level of disgust with what surrounds you is so great, be pro-active. Move on. Or do you love your anger too much?Report

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  6. Avatar
    Lee Armstrong Lumpkin says:

    Well said! As a native Georgian who now lives out-of-state, but continues to care about my home state and its people, I applaud the balance in your letter as I hope Governor Kemp will. It is time for Georgia to be an inclusive and reasonable place for all its citizens, put the past behind and embrace the future.Report

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  7. Avatar
    Jon Carlisle says:

    Angry Abrams spent more time in NY and Cali than Georgia, lost the race by a whopping 50K+ votes (all fraudulent?), and refused to concede or leave the doughnut shop. Democrats have a hard time losing . . .Report

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  8. Avatar
    atlman says:

    Hypocritically one-sided as always. Had Abrams won, would you have encouraged her to put Republicans on her transition and leadership teams and lectured her on the merits of bipartisanship? Would you have encouraged her to write and support an alternative religious liberty bill to address the legitimate concerns of social conservatives – such as conscience clauses for those who work in the medical profession – who have been in this state far longer and are much more economically vital to it than Hollywood, and unlike Hollywood doesn't need to be bribed with expensive tax credits and incentives to live and do business here? Saporta mentions "diversity" but ignores that the state's social conservatives – some 40% of the population – are part of this rainbow coalition too.

    Would you have chided her to represent Georgians who didn't vote for or support her in the same belittling manner that you did a person who has held statewide office for 8 years in such a way that had you been a conservative male addressing Abrams in a similar fashion you would have been accused of being a racist and sexist who insulted her intelligence and mansplained governance to her? As for "half the state living in metro Atlanta" … the problem is that metro Atlanta has 75% of the desirable jobs and employers, and if one removes education and healthcare from consideration that increases to over 90%.Since there is a strong correlation between disposable income and political contributions, this means that half of Georgia has no real political voice. So income equality as well as economic and political disenfranchisement are fine so long as they do not affect Georgia's Democratic power base including its affluent political donors in Fulton and DeKalb?

    If anything, Perdue, Deal nnd the GOP leadership erred by focusing economic development efforts on metro Atlanta because those areas thanked those who played a huge role in reducing metro Atlanta unemployment from over 10% to under 4% and dealing with the mortgage and school accreditation crises in Clayton and DeKalb that threatened economic recovery prospects by voting increasingly Democratic in the last 2 elections. So Kemp should allow metro Atlanta to use its significant resources to fend for itself while working to improve the lot of the other 131 counties that are nowhere as near economically advantaged. As these areas contain large numbers of low income and minority voters – indeed much of the state's black belt as well as a lot of migrant workers – this should have long been a priority for the state's Democrats and one wonders why it has not been. So lowering the unemployment rate in those areas by working to bring more hourly and some salaried jobs to places like Augusta, Savannah, Fort Valley, Blakely, Chula, Columbus, Whitesburg, Gainesville and Dalton would be an excellent political strategy.Report

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  9. Avatar
    onlinesavant says:

    How a candidate campaigns, is how she/he will govern if they are elected. It's this simple Maria.I can promise you that your request and/or pleas, are falling on deaf ears.No a matter however. I can promise you that he will be hounded for the entirety of his time in the office, with the truth of what he did to get into it. We will not forget, nor forgive, nor relent, until justice prevails.Report

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  10. Avatar
    Bill Rawlins says:

    Puh-leeze "onlinesavant", Abrams lost by over 50,000 legitimate votes. Don't be a sore loser. The voter role purging that everyone faulted Kemp for was part of a Georgia law signed by a Democratic governor in 1997. Save the silly conspiracy theories for the movies.Report

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  11. Avatar
    onlinesavant says:

    I said what I said, and we're going to do exactly what I said we're going to do. Don't like it? I really don't care. We're coming after him with the truth, and with in the end, justice will prevail.Report

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  12. Avatar
    William Judson says:

    So you really are every bit as closed minded as I thought you would be. Gun toting, I guess most atheists have no sense of humor. Is the ten commandments a bad thing also? Did you even listen for the last 5 years.Report

    Reply

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